Thursday, February 28, 2013

Ganja & Hess (1973) dir. Bill Gunn

Logline: During a tussle with his suicidal assistant, anthropologist Hess Green (Duane Jones) is stabbed with an ancient African dagger, causing him to develop an insatiable appetite for blood. When the assistant's wife, Ganja (Marlene Clark), arrives at Hess's home looking for her husband, she promptly moves in and begins to uncover the doctor's dark secret while falling in love with him. The couple soon descend into a nightmarish cycle of passion, addiction, and blood.

The potentially winning financial prospects for a black vampire film in the year after Blacula's massive success inspired Kelly/Jordan Productions to greenlight just such a project, placing their faith in producer Chiz Schultz to deliver an inexpensive slice of simplistic, easy-to-sell blaxploitation horror. Instead of aiming for that hard-to-miss goalpost, Schultz approached African American actor/playwright/screenwriter/author Bill Gunn with the project. Gunn wasn't at all interested in making a black vampire movie, but was very interested in directing a feature film, so accepted the job, figuring he could manipulate and transform the proposed vampire angle into a theme that interested him. The film produced from this uneasy marriage, Ganja & Hess, wound up resembling nothing close to a blaxploitation film, barring its use of an entirely black cast. Rather, Gunn's brilliant and chilling film was infected by the bug of independent 1970s arthouse cinema. In its direction, writing, and cinematography, Ganja & Hess has far more in common with John Cassavettes's early directorial output-- Shadows (1959), Faces (1968)-- than with Blackenstein (1973). The film is suffused with meandering conversations (equally as full of inanities as of profundities), disembodying close-ups of the actors, and frequent frightening dips into the well of nigh inscrutable surrealistic imagery. The film's distributors, horrified and befuddled by the seemingly unsaleable product Gunn and Schultz made with their money, mercilessly cut the film from its original running time of 113 minutes down to a breezy and incoherent 78, jettisoning all the material ancillary to their top priority for the film (blood-drinking). This version of the film, re-titled Blood Couple (and then given innumerable other titles for its various home video releases), though an affront to Gunn's original intentions for the film, was the only available version of the film for several decades after its brief theatrical release as Ganja & Hess (which included an acclaimed stop at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival).

What's lost in a re-edit of the film focusing on vampirism is that Ganja & Hess is a film concerned with addiction, not monster movie lore. These vampires walk in sunlight, drink their blood from cups, and haven't the ability to flap away into the night air as bats. (Though Hess, a wealthy and solitary man, does inhabit his own Dracula-esque mansion). The characters' vampirism is symbolic, pointing towards the codependent relationships spawned by addiction and the inevitable destruction they cause. (What addiction, precisely, the film's vampirism is symbolic of is left deliberately obscure. One might choose to read the characters' names as providing a hint, but the film most often seems to lean towards an addiction to sexual desire. Neither those nor any other explanation seem to fit the film precisely, which may indicate the film's decision to present a universal portrayal of addiction through fantasy, making it easily applicable to the real disease's numerous forms. Vampirism as addiction is a thematic device that's found its own comfortable niche in the artsy horror cinema of recent years, particularly in Abel Ferrara's The Addiction (1995), Larry Fessenden's Habit (1997), and Claire Denis's Trouble Every Day (2001).

Consequent to its emphasis on addiction, the film ponders issues of personal responsibility when a person is afflicted: is Hess, a person who has admittedly killed others to satiate his own, a criminal or a victim? A murderer or an innocent? Moreover, where's the dividing line between desire and need, and how are we capable of discerning which is which, of justifying anything as a desperate, uncontrollable need? (Hess's awkward, poetic, and suicidal assistant, George Meda (played by Bill Gunn himself), sums this dilemma up nicely in a monologue in which he asks Hess, rhetorically, "Do you know what hunger is?") When Hess selfishly shares his addiction with Ganja in order to bring them closer together, it in fact only tears them farther apart: Ganja, who is honest about her focus on her own self-interest and who has seen herself since childhood as a literal disease who infects others, learns to embrace her bloodlust while Hess, who is revolted at her behavior, his own behavior, or some combination of the two, chooses to save himself through a purifying-- and fatal-- embrace of the Christian religion. The film's offered conclusions to these issues and questions (especially those displayed in its enigmatic final scene) are provocative while being (at best) ambiguous. (Which is fitting, as the film itself is an ambiguous beast, mostly caused by its hallucinatory, discontinuous editing courtesy of editor Victor Kanefsky, who admits in an interview on Kino Lorber's excellent blu-ray release that he never bothered to look at the script while putting the film together.) If nothing else concrete, Ganja & Hess seems to posit that addiction is a natural force, a fact of life that we must either accept or fight against. None of us are immune, and we all have out own defining personal issues, Ganja explains to Hess. Our addictions only vary in their focus, and we can always learn to share them with one another: "You're into horror movies," she tells him, "I can dig it."

Monday, February 25, 2013

Sugar Hill (1974) dir. Paul Maslansky

Logline: After her man is murdered by a group of white gangster businessmen for refusing to sell them his voodoo-themed nightclub, Diana "Sugar" Hill (Marki Bey) casts aside her disbelief in order to summon some supernatural revenge against the racist killers with the assistance of Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley), voodoo lord of the dead, and his gang of merciless zombie minions.

Another American International Pictures/Samuel Z. Arkoff production, Sugar Hill is in almost every way a typical revenge film. It presents a belabored progression of one-by-one murders, with only the methods varying, supported by a moral certitude that runs unquestioned throughout the film, despite the fact that this certitude results in helpless schmucks being coldly murdered while whimpering for the preservation of their lives. Being typical and formulaic, Sugar Hill doesn't allow us to think too hard about the moral quandaries it necessarily poses, but that's because its filmmakers clearly don't want us to recognize them in the first place: they want us to enjoy the uncritical catharsis of seeing The Man get his. And because Sugar Hill is a quite well-made typical revenge film, we do enjoy it. Moreover, putting aside the recognizable ordinariness of its plot and story progression allows us to see that the film is bolstered by a relative wealth of delectable supernatural touches that set it apart from the slew of other revenge films littering the cinemas throughout the 1970s (including a not inconsiderable number of them falling under the blaxploitation banner, the foremost examples being Jack Hill's Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974)). Bullets and bare-knuckled brawls are traded in for fog-coated swampland, cobwebbed zombies with bugged-out brass eyeballs, and Baron Samedi's mischievous cackle disappearing into the night. If not an alteration of the revenge film's foundations, Sugar Hill at the very least offers an unusual and (literally) spirited take on the familiar tale.

The film does deal with issues of race throughout, though never extensively or critically. Because it's a simple revenge tale, its villains are all unambiguously villainous and racist (and are also, barring two interesting exceptions, all middle aged white men). They call our protagonist a "black bitch" and her murdered lover a "dead nigger." They punch and abuse their black employees while condescending to the rest: Morgan (Robert Quarry), the gang's leader, tells one of his main thugs (the only black man he has allowed to rise to this station) that he'll "make an honest negro" out of him yet. Worst of all is Morgan's girlfriend, Celeste (Betty Anne Rees), who makes her racism apparent by refusing to serve a black person a drink but all too willing to smash the bottle over that same person's head. So Sugar Hill's desire to exact revenge against these murderous and hateful creeps isn't without cause, but her actions in doing so are dealt with in too shallow a manner to offer any interesting critique or commentary about race or the nature of vengeance. She invokes dark forces to get the job done, but is relieved of having to pay any material or spiritual price for the help. (In making an almost-clever joke out of the racist fear, the film ends with the sexuality-oozing Baron Samedi carrying off the helpless-- and helplessly racist-- white girl to the underworld in place of Sugar.) More importantly, Sugar facilitates the murder of a number of weeping men and is changed not at all by her decision or the experience of watching them die before her eyes: she remains cool, collected, unflinching, dare we say superfly after each notch added to the body count. Upon her revenge's completion, she fully intends to return to her life as it was before this whole mess, unpunished and only vaguely suspected by the authorities. She may even choose to explore her new budding romance with the charming cop she had to push out of the way (and down a flight of stairs by way of a voodoo doll) when her bloody business was preoccupying her thoughts and time. (How soon dead lovers-- those whose memory is fought for-- are forgotten! O, most wicked speed!) There's much to enjoy about the film on a technical level (cinematography, performances, music, make-up and costuming are all top notch for this sort of low-budget genre offering), but thematically it's all a little too black and white.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Abby (1974) dir. William Girdler

Logline: During an archaeological research trip to Nigeria, Bishop Garnet Williams (William Marshall) unwittingly unleashes the African Yoruba trickster spirit Eshu, which then hops on a transcontinental flight and implants itself in Williams's daughter-in-law, a marriage counselor named Abby (Carol Speed). Under Eshu's devilish influence, Abby hurls around potty language, drools milk, grows some mean eyebrows, and chats up all the men down at the bar. Will Williams be able to return to America fast enough tie a bib onto Abby, exorcize her demon, and save her eternal soul?

William Girdler's Abby was hardly the only film to brazenly ride the box office cash wave that Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973) stirred up in the mid-1970s (Beyond the Door (1974), Şeytan (1974), Magdalena, Possessed by the Devil (1974), and Exorcismo (1975) are all as guilty), yet nonetheless it was the one to suffer Warner Brothers' wrath, being sued nearly out of existence by the studio after a short but lucrative run in theaters. (Unlike the others, Abby was an American production and so more susceptible to copyright claims. It's worth noting: Warner won the lawsuit). American International Pictures, having made their quick buck, allowed Abby to languish in obscurity for decades afterwards, and the film's availability in the U.S. has been plagued ever since by ownership questions, degraded prints, and subpar home video releases, all of which have done little to salvage the film's reputation.  Girdler, who was in the prime of a very productive exploitation movie career and would tragically die in a helicopter accident in 1978 at the all-too-young age of 30, went of after Abby's completion and disappearance to do more blaxploitation (Sheba, Baby (1975)) and horror (Grizzly (1976), Day of the Animals (1977), The Manitou (1978). Grizzly, the most unabashed of Jaws ripoffs (obscuring the infringement merely by replacing the shark with a bear), demonstrates that Abby's fate had little effect on the sort of films he signed on to make. Exploitation-- even exploitation of other films-- was his game for life.

Divorced from its post-release baggage, Abby isn't all that bad. Warner Brothers' complaint wasn't unfounded-- it is fundamentally The Exorcist with an African American cast, cashing in on two fads at once-- but there are enough differences in tone and style to make them divergent viewing experiences. In contrast to its prestige-oozing forebear, Abby is an inventive and amusing cheapie that plays itself up for entertainment value. Its gravely serious script belies the visual fun the film has with Carol Speed's goofy, milk-spewing performance as the demonically influenced Abby, who curses like the meanest of sailors while tossing drunken sleazeballs around a bar with her mind. Her being an adult also allows for more overt sexuality than Linda Blair's teenaged Regan was capable of (though nothing here-- like Abby's erotic showertime-- comes close to besting the explicitness of Regan's violent crucifix masturbation). But then, the film fails to use this advantage in order to make any coherent commentary upon 1970s sexual mores, taboos, and hypocrisies because, again, Abby's demonic sexuality is played for giggles: in one scene, she leads a randy but conflicted man to his automobile for some hanky panky, which we see from outside the car as it comically rocks back and forth and fills up with hellfire smoke. Another interesting difference is how Abby downplays the power of its possessing demon, with Blacula's William Marshall portraying a bishop who coolly labels the demon a fraud and easily expels him from his young host. Besides the bishop's brief inciting sojourn to Africa and some small but ultimately inconsequential lip-service paid to African religious belief, the film avoids incorporating any contemporary social issues involving race into its plot, which makes it a very hollow vessel indeed. It does, however, employ a pretty smooth generic funk soundtrack, so I can't bring myself to accuse it of being totally bereft of soul.

Monday, February 18, 2013

J. D.'s Revenge (1976) dir. Arthur Marks

Logline: In 1942, a New Orleans hustler named J. D. (David McKnight) and his sister are murdered in a slaughterhouse. Thirty years later, Ike (Glynn Turman), a law student and cab driver, sees a vision of their murders while under hypnosis during a stage show. In the days that follow Ike begins to take on the characteristics, mannerisms, and appearance of the violent J. D., frightening those closest to him. J. D.'s possession of Ike is necessary for the achievement of his ghostly goal: revenge from beyond the grave against those who wronged him.

It begins, inexplicably, in a slaughterhouse. A first person perspective camera leads us down a dingy, unhygienic, soft-focused hallway towards the sounds of arguing voices. The man whose perspective we've been sharing is revealed to us: a well-dressed man, far too well dressed for this setting. He stops just outside the doorway of a large room and spies on what he finds inside. The room is full of carcasses, dead cows processed and stripped of their skin, hanging from hooks as meat yet to be butchered. In the center of all this are a man and a woman, the man yelling and the woman laughing, making the scene a vague spiritual predecessor to the opening scene of Jean Rollin's Fascination (1979). At this point, the content of their conversation means little to us, but we grasp the general dynamic and we fear that the situation is about to come to a head. Perhaps we understand this better than they do: the man, unable to control himself, removes a straight razor from his jacket pocket and with no warning slashes the laughing woman's throat. In slow motion she throws her head back, her  laughter insupressible, her throat gaping from its new wound, her face frozen in a smile as she falls. A revolving carousel of well-dressed men then circle into various positions around her corpse-- another one for the meat hooks-- as one of the men flees, the other takes his place kneeling by her, and the last arrives to take the place of observer. It's an enigmatic way for the film to begin, and the screen will return to images of it throughout, each time altering what we've seen in surreal but significant ways: the meat turns back into cows as we watch their throats be cut, the woman is strung feet first among the carcasses, blood pours steaming down floor drains. The only constant is the smile on the dying woman's face.

J. D.'s Revenge is a fine film, but it never approaches the power of that opening sequence. The acting is certainly powerful: Glynn Turman's physical and psychological transformation from the gentle and good-natured Ike into the raging, hormonal, flamboyant beast J. D. is rather remarkable, and Lou Gossett's pew-hopping performance as Reverend Elija Bliss is certainly energetic. But, otherwise, it's merely a well-plotted revenge thriller with a subtle mystery at its core (we know the solution to the puzzle from the outset, but the pieces are pleasantly blurred and amorphous). I simply can't find much subtext here, race-oriented or otherwise. Of mild interest is the fact that J. D.'s possession of Ike finds the young black man-- a law student aspiring to a better life after past indiscretions-- lapsing back into old and eventually even worse ways, but it falls short of making any sort of class commentary. In one early scene, post-hypnotic possession, Ike looks into a mirror and sees the visage of J. D. staring back at him, the seeming Hyde to his Jekyll. But the two men are not one in the same, as the film strives to assure us of, rather than leaving us with nagging doubts or ambiguities about whether or not J. D.'s woman-beating, granny violence, and two-timing mirrors Ike's own internal instability: revenge completed, J. D.'s ghost exits Ike's body and allows him to strut out gaily into the sunshine arm-in-arm with his pals, the only baggage he's saddled with from his horrifying experience being a new hairdo.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976) dir. William Crain

Logline: Dr. Pryde (Bernie Casey), a respected and compassionate African American physician who donates much of his time to a free clinic in a poor black neighborhood, has been developing a serum that can heal cirrhotic livers. Being unable to achieve any definite results without a human test subject, Dr. Pryde injects himself with his own unstable serum, mutating himself into a hulking, brutish white man with a personal vendetta against black prostitutes.

Four years after he directed Blacula (1972), William Crain returned to the sub-subgenre he helped to create with Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde. A competent, provocative, and well-acted film, it demonstrates Crain's significant technical and storytelling advancements as a horror filmmaker, although unfortunately he neglected to grace the genre with his presence at any other point during his infrequent career as a director. On a technical level, Dr. Black manages to include moments that, while never exactly frightening, do manage to impress with smart editing and skilled framing (I'm thinking particularly of the early scene in which a dying patient who has received a dose of Pryde's serum attacks a nurse, as well as Pryde's ultra creepy injection-based proposition of the prostitute Linda (Marie O'Henry) when she is trapped in his living room). Chief among the film's cinematic accomplishments is the climactic showdown between Pryde and the police at Watts Tower, which carries an air of desperate inevitability and crippling pathos as Pryde abandons his, well, pride and becomes a howling, dying animal. Throughout this sequence Crain and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (who would go on to have a very successful career in Hollywood) cut to devastating closeups of actor Bernie Casey's pained face, emoting achingly through layers of Stan Winston's pancake monster makeup. From a storytelling perspective, this is a much brisker and better paced affair than Blacula, with interesting characters and amusing action sequences adding some further appeal. Moreover, it uses the basics of Robert Louis Stevenson's tale not to produce cliched themes and situations, but powerful symbolic representations of race and class issues in 1970s America.

Though Dr. Pryde is a generous man, donating much of his free time to helping poor blacks from poor neighborhoods with free medicine, there's no denying that he doesn't quite fit in with other members of his race. Linda, a prostitute he's treating for hepatitis, lambasts him for this, claiming that "the only time [he's] around black people" is when he's at the free clinic "clearing [his] conscience." Pryde's response-- "Nigga, please"-- feels like a totally absurd and disingenuous comment to spill from the mouth of this very "white" suburban black man. Linda comments that his white coat suits him, insinuating that he suffers from a form of white envy: "You dress white, you think white, you probably even drive a white car." (He does). The film supports Linda's assertion every chance it gets by visually associating Pryde with the color white (white clothes, white home decor, the antiseptic white of his lab and clinic). Pryde's pride certainly doesn't lie in the "low" class and status of the majority of his fellow black brothers and sisters in 1970s urban American (as we see when he shuns Linda for making life choices she has very little control of), so when he discovers that his liver serum results in the "total reduction of pigmentation" in the skin of living beings, it's no wonder that he soon rationalizes the necessity of injecting himself with it. After doing so, Pryde transforms into a highly aggressive "white dude" who lashes out (primarily) against the poor urban black population of Los Angeles. Pryde is contrasted with Linda, the film's most sympathetic character, who-- while noting the relative ease she would have getting out of her profession if she were white, and in fact being offered the opportunity to become such by Pryde-- refuses to forsake her own color and identity in order to advance up the social ladder. She values her her black community (the only family she feels she has) and doesn't aspire to see herself above them. In contrast, Pryde lusts after a sort of power that will set him apart from others. Tragically, it's not his beneficent accomplishments that fill him with such power and pride, but his ability to look at his own monstrous hands, his own monstrous face, and see blinding whiteness.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Blackenstein (1973) dir. William A. Levey

a.k.a. The Black Frankenstein

Logline: Dr. Winifred Walker (Ivory Stone), a young black research scientist, reconnects with her mentor, the kindly Dr. Stein (John Hart), to ask his help in healing the physical ailments of her limbless Vietnam veteran fiancee, Eddie (Joe De Sue). Dr. Stein's DNA and RNA research allows the two to grant Eddie the gift of new limbs, but the chemical meddling of Dr. Stein's covetous assistant results in Eddie transforming into a lumbering monster eager to play around in various ladies' entrails.

When watching Blackenstein, it's not difficult to imagine how it could have turned out better. A cinematic tale about an injured and disgraced African American Vietnam vet being turned into a monster by a patriarchal white scientist trying to "cure" his malady is primed for the inclusion of both the light racial critique of a film like Blacula (1972) (the success of which was clearly responsible for this film's existence) as well as some commentary on the hostile treatment of scarred Vietnam soldiers by the public in the aftermath of that unpopular conflict.* Regrettably, William A. Levey's virtual non-adaptation of the Frankenstein story does neither, instead bluntly reenforcing racist assumptions through its cliched and uncritical narrative, with the seeming complicity of its black cast.

The film's racial offenses are many. For one, there's the issue of Eddie, our titular monster, who becomes a horrific, bestial creature (he grows hair on the backs of his hands) after Dr. Stein's attempt to give him new limbs. This primal beast proceeds to then ravage innocent (mostly) white women, often abducting them in the streets and carrying them off to do who-knows-what. Eddie is hardly what one would characterize as a progressive depiction of the black male in 1970s America. It's also worth noting that Dr. Stein, our obvious Frankenstein proxy and benevolent white patriarch, is not this Creature's creator: rather, the person responsible is Dr. Stein's black assistant, Malcomb (Roosevelt Jackson), who sabotages the experiments to regrow Eddie's limbs because he wishes to win the mind and body of Eddie's fiancee, Winifred, for himself.  Unlike most depictions of Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Stein hasn't a selfish or malevolent bone in him (in fact, he's been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for ambiguously "solving the DNA genetic code"), while Malcomb is lecherous and greedy (in once scene sinking so low as to smile to himself while scarfing down Dr. Stein's unattended dinner). The general anxiety the film expresses about black males and their "uncontrollable animal urges" is upsetting, and its response to this anxiety is grim, ending as it does in the (white) police sicking a pack of police dogs on Eddie to rip him limb from limb and then devour him.  

Blackenstein's backwards approach to racial issues is best encapsulated by a moment that occurs late in the film, when a black emcee tells a joke about segregation to an audience at a night club (A black man walks into a cafe: "Sir, we do not serve colored folks here" "I'm glad to know that, young lady, 'cause I don't eat colored folks nowhere"). The camera cuts to reaction shots of both white and black patrons in the crowd laughing uproariously. One way of interpreting the joke and its effect would be to say that it deflates the casual racism of the cafe's segregationist policies. But the other way of interpreting it is as a joke far more insidious in intent, trivializing and so upholding the status quo by making its audience laugh at the issue, instead of treating it with the seriousness that it deserves. Who is the joke making fun of anyway, the cafe and its absurd policy or the black customer who fails (either intentionally or unintentionally) to grasp the meaning of the policy's phrasing? Similarly, Blackenstein lets us laugh at the sight of a raging African id terrorizing White America, causing us to neglect to notice that maybe the film wasn't telling a joke to begin with.

Blackenstein's merits are few, and it's a tough recommendation for any but the most ardent fans of cheapo exploitation features. Though the cinemaphotography is sporadically inspired (of note is a nice 360° revolution around Dr. Stein's elongated Gothic dinner table), the editing is haphazard, with sloppy and abrupt cuts between scenes causing narrative confusion and signalling both its scrappy origins and its makers' lack of skill or care. Actor Joe De Sue-- incredibly-- shows more life when transformed into the Creature than he does when portraying a disfigured veteran, and his Human-Being-as-Log-of-Wood performance is of some limited amusement. And of course there is just enough entrails-spilling and arm-ripping to keep the interest of gore hounds mildly piqued, even if these moments are somewhat obscured in literal (poorly-lit) and figurative senses (why exactly is Eddie pulling out and then smelling women's intestines?). But mostly Blackenstein appeals to no one, leaving itself (to a much greater degree than Blacula does to itself) as little more than a novelty title.

*There is one moment that limply addresses the Vietnam issue: early on, we see Eddie being verbally abused by an orderly at the VA hospital who tells him that he deserves no special treatment simply because he's a veteran (though the orderly appears envious that he himself wasn't allowed to serve). Later on, post-transformation, this orderly is the first person whom Eddie attacks and kills. Justice, one supposes.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Scream, Blacula, Scream! (1973) dir. Bob Kelljan

Logline: After being resurrected in a voodoo ceremony, the African vampire prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) seeks the help of an adept priestess (Pam Grier) to rid him of his ancient curse. But in the meantime, Mamuwalde can't be blamed for having a few midnight snacks to tide him over...

Released only a year after its predecessor and directed by Bob "Count Yorga" Kelljan, Scream, Blacula, Scream! represents a remarkable uptick in quality, allowing it to snatch the coveted label of a sequel that bests its progenitor. There are noticeable improvements in every key area. Though virtually the same length as the previous film, the pacing is quickened, leaving the audience with more action and suspense due to a profusion of ancillary vampires that require staking. The characters are stronger and more interesting, with Pam Grier, Richard Lawson, and Don Mitchell doing solid work while William Marshall brings an alternately softer and sterner approach to his beefed up role as the titular vampire. Moreover, Marshall's Blacula is genuinely frightening this go-around, with his harsh and static facial expressions making a menacing match with his grotesque movements and posture. Most importantly, the story abandons the first film's simplistic Dracula-as-Tragic-Lover cliche, crafting a more complex story of attempted and failed redemption that deals openly and throughout with ideas of slavery, corruption by white influence, and the power of African religion. 

This sequel's iteration of Mamuwalde is a morally righteous but ultimately conflicted and hypocritical creature of the night. His vampire curse plagues him, and he loathes that he must feed on others to survive (though he certainly isn't about to stop). He spends the majority of the film working with Grier's voodoo priestess to conduct a ceremony that will release him from his vampirism (which, recall from last time, was inflicted by a white man's desire to control him) and allow him to live up to the moral standards he holds for others. Because-- at least on the surface-- this is an impassioned and moral vampire we're dealing with. In one curious scene, Mamuwalde is accosted by two black pimps on the street who attempt to mug him. Mamuwalde chastises them for their life choices when he refers to their prostitute by saying, "You've made a slave of your sister, and you're still slaves, imitating your slave master!" It's a powerful line and sentiment, but it's undercut by the fact that Mamuwalde has been assembling his very own hoard of black vampire slaves throughout the film. He issues these pet vampires commands that they must obey, punishes those who do not, and uncritically expects their total devotion to him and his cause, though providing them nothing in return. (The film's most disturbing scene is one in which a slave vampire stares up at his master and pleads with his eyes for permission to drink the blood from a meal he's captured. Mamuwalde looks down at him in sickened disgust). 

How does the stench of his hypocrisy fail to infiltrate his nostrils like a clove of garlic? He's aware that his vampirism drives him to do evil deeds, but he shows little ability or willingness to control himself. He purposely protects Lisa (Pam Grier's priestess) because her skills as a human will serve him, but decides that all other people are fit for his fangs. His purposeful self-restraint when it comes to Lisa makes it clear that there's some amount of choice involved in his actions, so why not abandon killing altogether so as to practice what he's preaching? As he states at one point, he could simply destroy himself and hence release himself from the curse, but he never seriously considers this to be an option. His desire for his own self-preservation and his own privilege over those he sees as lesser beings (everyone in the room may be black, but he's a vampire, as he often points out to the puny humans who challenge him) makes him into the thoughtless slave imitating the slave master.

Mamuwalde appears to be victim of a scuffle between his dueling personalities: the dignified African prince striving for harmony among the people of his race, and the bloodsucking, power-hungry African animal that Count Dracula-- the whitest of privileged white men-- taught him to be. His choice of African-derived voodoo to help him beat the manufactured "Blacula" raging within him is appropriate, for the literal curse bestowed by white European influence will be "exorcised" through African religious custom. Tragically, his indoctrination away from his cultural and personal identity through the symbolic vampirism is too strong to be peacefully eradicated. At the film's climax, one character attempts to catch his bloodlusting attention by yelling out, "Mamuwalde!" to which our brainwashed vampire growls in response, "The name is Blacula!," signalling his resigned acceptance of his role as corrupted monster. Lisa destroys him with voodoo anyway, demonstrating the validity of the power African religion and belief still has on Mamuwalde's existence, but the tragedy (a genuine tragedy this time) lies in the fact that this isn't enough to save his soul.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Blacula (1972) dir. William Crain

Logline: In the late 1700s, African prince Mamuwalde travels with his princess to Transylvania to seek the help of the renowned Count Dracula in his effort to end the global slave trade. What the Count gives him instead is a bite upon the neck and a tomb to cool his heels in for the next two centuries as a starving vampire. 1972, Los Angeles: Mamuwalde's coffin has been mistakenly transported to the City of Angels, where he soon awakens and wreaks bloodsucking havoc while pursuing the love of a woman resembling his long-dead wife.

William Crain's Blacula, a relatively early entry in the blaxploitation genre, created a secondary strand of horror-themed blaxploitation pictures, many of which reinterpreted classic horror stories and tropes by replacing the normally white Anglican characters with black characters and occasionally exploring contemporary social issues relevant to the black community. Unfortunately for Blacula's popular and critical regard, the film's most interesting bits of racial commentary occur within the first five minutes and are more or less abandoned for the remainder. A distinguished and gentlemanly prince, Mamuwalde (William Marshall) is first shown appealing to Dracula to lend his well-regarded name in the fight to give Africans their basic human rights by abolishing the slave trade. Mamuwalde desires to go even further than achieving this freedom from enslavement by also expressing his desire to see his continent's cultural customs introduced to the global community, rather than erased through assimilation. He is, in a sense, a diplomat, and he carries himself with poise and dignity, expecting the same respect from white men that he gives to them. But in a bizarre inversion of Stoker's version of the Dracula story, in which Dracula himself is the victim of some thinly veiled racism (recall that at one moment Stoker's Dracula bleeds money), Blacula's Count-- an effete, flamboyant aristocrat-- takes offense to the presumptions of equality coming from this personage of "the Dark Continent." While a slave may find slavery barbarous from his own point of view, Dracula believes that slavery-- from the perspective of a wealthy white man-- certainly has "some merit," it being both "intriguing and delightful" to exert baseless control over an entire race of people for personal gain. After making this statement, Dracula tastelessly calls Mamuwalde's wife "delicious" and counters her husband's anger by arguing that any such statement from someone of his own "station" to someone of a lower station like his vistor's must be viewed as a compliment.

But it's important to note that someone of Dracula's "station" is, in addition to being a privileged white man, a bloodsucking monster. In this moment Dracula is a representative of the entirety of the white race, acting-- as Mamuwalde points out-- like "some sort of animal," hungry for its own sense of entitlement. Dracula attempts to argue the opposite by pointing out that old racist standby: "it is you who comes from the jungles." Yet, the Count proves the peaceful, civilized Mamuwalde correct in the next moment by having his thugs savagely attack the prince and princess. Dracula bites Mamuwalde, transforming him into a vampire like himself and imparting to him a "gnawing, animal hunger" for the blood of others, which Mamuwalde-- as a normal black man-- did not possess. But Mamuwalde is no longer a normal black man after this moment: he is black man in the thrall of a white man, forced to suffer change to his fundamental nature and relinquish his own cultural and personal identity for that of the white man's (an identity synonymous with "bloodsucker"). In the fashion of a slave owner, Dracula even renames his new pet "Blacula," stripping that last vestige of his independent racial identity from him. From this point on, Mamuwalde's actions as a growling, blood-lusting animal are defined by white perceptions of black actions, regardless of how contrary they are to reality. Our vampiric African hero spends the rest of the film learning to release himself from the destructive stasis of white perception and regain his humanity. Blacula's poignant moments of racial consciousness display an understanding of how strained interactions and miscomprehension between the races can, regrettably, cause problematic alterations in racial identity.

The rest of the film isn't consistent enough to derive any other sort of race-based messages from (though it is curious that Blacula's black, blood-deprived victims develop a paler complexion). Rather, Blacula's present-day action is overly conventional, casting its lead vampire as a romantic anti-hero (a role for the character that would reach its schmaltzy, operatic apex in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)). The action moves briskly, but the script is plagued by odd attempts at humor (much of it homophobic in nature) and a bland supporting cast. William Marshall is a commanding presence in the lead role (even if he's given little to actually do) and the film has one of the best (and funkiest) opening credit sequences of the 1970s, but otherwise Blacula is probably more famous for its title and concept than its execution.